It’s extremely difficult not to think of Iranian music in terms of black and white, before and after. The 1979 Revolution all but put an end to non-religious music-making in the country for the better part of a decade (not to mention the Persian pop and jazz fusions this culture had thrived on since the turn of the century). Foreign influences became even less welcome. Thirty years later and not even the anodyne Chris De Burgh, who had been weirdly experimenting with an Iranian band, could get a visa. In fact, it was only last month that the first American musician since the 70s was allowed to perform in the country.
Recent music compilations (Pharaway Sounds’ Funk, Psychedelia and Pop from the Iranian Pre-Revolution Generation , B-Music’s Pomegranates: Persian Pop, Funk, Folk and Psych of the 60s and 70s and Secret Stash’s Persian Funk) have been anxious to reclaim a liberated period that was stomped out of existence by violent puritanical reform. What, really, can be more rock n’ roll than that? Just look how funky, groovy, sexy things were before the country crossed over to the dark side. How else can anyone contextualize the cataclysmic cultural shift from Googoosh singing ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ to women being banned from singing altogether? (N.b. they were recently given permission to do so, so long as are they aren’t singing solo in front of men who are unrelated to them.)
It’s easy to forget that the so-called Golden Age of Iranian pop music immediately prologues the 1979 revolution, that it was there bopping away right to the very end. Culturally speaking, its terminus gives us a through-the-looking-glass picture of the Shah’s own mid-century White Revolution which aimed to ‘de-feudalize’ Iran autocratically. The result of this earlier upheaval had been a five year plan that lurched on for twenty, veiling increased economic disparity with imperial glamor, political and religious disharmony with OPEC back-scratching. We could perhaps say that the Iranian pop (musiqi-ye pap) heard during this ‘pre-revolutionary’ stage of the game was similarly that of a culture being bullied into shape. On the one hand the music served as an a-political distraction, on the other it could give a televisual thumbs-up to state ideology. A quick trawl of YouTube videos is enough to get a sense of the cultural gloss: singer after singer appears David Cassidy-like, alone on a saturated sound stage, shaking their gilded wares. The packaging screams commercial, fun, saccharine, safety. Modernity had arrived. But as with any varnish, it’s possible to scratch beneath the surface and reveal the true grain.
Iran is a country squeezed not just from within but without. You can hear this in the hyperactive fusions that abound in much of its pop music, perhaps most overtly in the work of sitar maestro Abbas Mehrpouya who seemed to be taking as much inspiration from Bollywood as Lalo Schifrin and Isaac Hayes. This cross-cultural pollination wasn’t a one way street either, as is evidenced in songs like Marjan’s “Kavire Del’ (Desert of the Heart)” with its waddling, downbeat synth and some fearsome, Desire-like interplay between vocal and violin—here we have a tune could later find a home in Turkish (recorded as ‘Baksana Talihe’ by Adja Pekkan) as easily and as weirdly as it could in 80s Bolivian cumbia (‘Vuelve Ami Lado’ by America Pop). The chorus is forthright and full of enough hurt that translation seems unnecessary. Even if we don’t share the language of the lyrics, the music speaks for itself.
The essence of the music would seem to be its characteristic melancholy. Nearly everything in this songbook, no matter how poppy, seems calibrated on a minor scale. And that means, even during a so-called Golden Age, even when everything was meant to look bountiful and carefree and ‘an island of stability’, hints of despair could be found everywhere. In a country where political dissent had to be all but invisible, gut-wrenching singers like Dariush Eghbali and Farhad Mehrad turned to traditional poetry to offer coded social comments within their songs. Sharam Shabpareh, meanwhile, did something even more indirect—and yet somehow just as full of protest.
Sharam’s recording of Graham Nash’s “Prison Song” stands apart, and not just because of the English lyrics. The content, at first glance, would seem to be wholly American (‘kids in Texas, smoking grass…misdemeanor in Ann Arbor’). Nash’s original is cut from the same cloth as his earlier “Chicago” and CSNY’s “Ohio,” state of the nation songs that had counter-culture chants and marches in their bloodstream. Shabpareh’s artful move is to both appropriate this political otherness (a tale of people being steamrolled by the American War on Drugs) and, with a musical sleight of hand, give it an Iranian moral. Nash’s harmonica, which places his song in a lineage with the protests of Dylan and Guthrie, is here reinvented as blaring, punchy horn lines. They are quintessentially Eastern, yes, but this is not “Ishafan” or some postcard Persian exotica. This is rage and exasperated social comment disguised as pop. Even if Sharam were singing in Farsi, the song’s first mournful measures would give us the tone of the story. Those horns aren’t about to get the party going because they are too full of battle-scarred history. The skanky guitar is mean, but hanging back, the jazzy piano breaks, noir-ish and similarly inflected with disquiet. The bass line may be up front and center, but it’s eschewing dance-ability for what seems more like broody accusation. The fact that it’s a cover song, sung in slightly broken English about someplace other than Iran, seems to have freed the musicians to throw punches they might not have otherwise thrown on record. It’s all there in the dark funk of the arrangement and indirectly relevant lyrics.
I’ve no idea what sort of impact this song had, if any, within Iran at the time. Perhaps it was just one among many howls in the night. I do know that it came at a time when the aforementioned Dariush had been arrested on trumped-up drug charges (after his song “Pariya” (The Fairies) was banned for being too insubordinate), when crackdowns weren’t waiting for the next revolution to take place. But it’s worth considering, regardless, what it might have meant to encounter a song like this at the time. Let’s think for a moment what it might have meant to sing these words, this way, at a time when one authoritarian regime was about to make way for another. words / dk o’hara
And here’s a song to sing
For every man inside.
If he can hear you sing it’s an open door.
There’s not a rich man there,
Who couldn’t pay his way
And buy the freedom that’s a high price for the poor.
Sharam Shabpareh :: Prison Song